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This library is for the kids only!

Arati Menon Carroll | July 09, 2005

From 10 years at Infosys to founder CEO of the high-profile IT company Bangalore Labs, three years ago Umesh Malhotra looked every bit the typical corporate executive. Then in 2002, after selling Bangalore Labs to PlanetOne Asia, Malhotra put his cash to good use and chased a nagging dream. By March 2003, Hippocampus, Malhotra's very own library for Bangalore's children, was up and running.

From IT to I Read
I have an engineering degree from IIT Chennai. I picked up the first job I was offered on campus, at a then little known IT company called Infosys Technologies. After 10 years at Infosys, managing their electronics payment vertical, my business vertical contributed 5 per cent of company revenue.

I quit in 1999 to start Bangalore Labs, an IT infrastructure management company. Two-and-a-half years later, we sold the company. I quit IT and followed my dream to start a children's library.

What is Hippocampus?
Hippocampus is not a library, or a club, a work shop, or a community centre -- it is all that and more. We call it an experience centre -- a vibrant and dynamic environment offering an almost endless range of opportunities from every area of life.

Today, the Hippocampus library has more than 7,000 books for children to choose from. Children can choose and watch DVDs in the film room, or play games on the available PCs.

Kids can choose from six Hippocampus clubs -- the Art Club, Music club, Journalism Club (a club which lets them start their own newspaper), Nature Club, Cooking Club and the Adventure Club -- and participate in themed monthly activities and creative learning forums.

The inspiration
Before I quit Infosys, my wife and I spent 18 months in the US and were astounded by all that a child there is exposed to in terms of education and hands-on experience. There were public libraries in every neighbourhood.

Here you could find children of all ages engaged in reading, working on school projects or checking out activities and workshops that they could sign up for during the course of the year.

And all this, amazingly, was free. When we came back to India, in 1999, we realised that although an enormous number of children's books are published each year, children in India have hardly any access to them. While the inspiration for Hippocampus came from American public libraries, the concept itself took a life of its own.

Not just a library for rich kids
Our experience centre in Bangalore's Koramangala residential area was set up for privileged children. In December 2004, we opened a second centre. But we're far from being just a library for rich kids.

The Hippocampus Reading Foundation, which we set up together with our non-profit partners like the Akshara Foundation, among others, is involved in setting up libraries for kids in slum communities, government schools, and NGO-run schools.

We currently run 38 such libraries. They have to prove that they are serious enough about the cause to raise a one-time investment of Rs 5,000 per 20 kids. After that, we work with them on an ongoing basis for free.

We have also introduced a reading reward system whereby children are positively reinforced for their reading habits, with quarterly day trips organised for winners.

Where do we go from here?
Ultimately, we want all children to read. Just this week, along with Wipro, we began a pilot run of taking over library transformations in lower income group schools. We loan the initial investment to these schools who repay based on an affordable installment plan.

This is not a business opportunity, it was born out of the realisation that we need to fix a problem in school libraries and that all our work can't be outside schools. We want our entire reading programme to be built around a sustainable model.

We charge our beneficiaries in different segments based on their income levels. Today, because our work with less privileged children has expanded so much, we're running on a bit of a deficit.

But we're working on alternative revenue streams like developing reading fluency assessment tests that we can then sell to mainstream schools for profit. In two years, our entire programme will be self-sustaining.

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